Seeking Santa in Strasbourg

The beautiful Christmas tree in Place Kléber, the central square in Strasbourg

One of the things we knew we wanted to experience while living in Europe were some of the amazing Christmas markets that happen every year. With Fern’s brother scheduled to come to Paris for Christmas this year, we decided we’d do the trip with him, and chose Strasbourg as our destination. Due to a massive transit strike that began in Paris on 5 December, however, the trip wasn’t quite as smooth as initially expected. Before we ever left, our return trip was canceled and we ended up having to rebook to a different train. Getting to the train station was also a bit chaotic, as finding taxis and dealing with the resultant traffic was certainly more complicated than usual…but we made it with enough time for a quick Starbucks stop. The train itself was easy…a quick 2 hour ride from the Gare de l’Est in Paris.

The Grande Île in Strasbourg lies in the center of town, and is a UNESCO World Heritage site. It is home to one of the largest and oldest Christmas markets in Europe, and is one of the best known in France. The town itself lies on the German border in northeastern France and is the chief city of the Alsace, a region known for sweet white wines and wonderful cheeses. This is a region that has been under both German and French control at various points in history, and both influences are greatly seen in the city. The mix of German and French…in language, architecture, and even food…was very, very prevalent everywhere we turned.

After the terrorist attacks at the Christmas market in Strasbourg last year, security was very tight. We took the metro into the Grand Île, where our hotel was, and before crossing the bridge into the isle, we went through a pretty thorough security check. It made me very glad our hotel was on the island, though, because to go back and forth through security several times would not have been fun. Check in process at the Sofitel Strasbourg Grand Île was smooth, and we set off ready to explore the markets and the town.

We started by walking through the main square in the town, Place Kléber, where there was a farmer’s market going on, as well as an ice skating rink. We found the “local producers” section of the Christmas market first, and we were able to buy some deliciously stinky muenster cheese, as well as taste (and buy) a few Alsatian wines, and some beautiful Christmas ornaments. We had wanted to buy some of the gorgeous blown glass ornaments that a local producer sells…but as this was the last weekend of the market before Christmas, they were out of anything truly unique. But we did stumble into a classic French carousel that Belinda wanted to ride, and I was able to bribe Kenneth to go with her.

After all that walking around, the natives (aka, the children) started growing restless for lunch, and we wandered into Restaurant Au Dauphin to grab a traditional Alsatian meal. It was funny to be offered menus in French, German or English! My German roots are always very, very happy to find a well done choucroute (sauerkraut), and I wasn’t disappointed here! But, lunch wasn’t the main focus of our day, and we had lots more to explore.

Unfortunately, the weather forecast for us called for rain that day in Strasbourg, and shortly after lunch, the skies began to open up. And they didn’t just open…it POURED. We thought this would be a good time to check out Strasbourg’s Notre Dame Cathedral, and hope that the rain would go away. I’m glad that it was raining, though, because this church was beautiful. Obviously, traveling through Europe and living in Paris, we’ve seen a ton of gorgeous churches, but this one was spectacular. One of the unique features this cathedral has is the astronomical clock, that was used to calculate Easter before computers existed. It is known to be unusually accurate. Other than the clock, the church is still absolutely beautiful, and the nativity scene on display due to the season was magnificent.

Upon exiting the cathedral, it was still pouring rain. So, everyone was cold and wet, and we decided to head back to the hotel to dry off and rest a bit. We were praying for a lift in the rain because, obviously, the magic of the Christmas markets can be better seen at night, when millions of lights twinkled all over the city. Fortunately, the weather cleared, and we were able to explore. We were still full from our large, late lunch…so dinner consisted of grabbing “bretzels” and other goodies from the various stands at the markets.

We only spent one night in Strasbourg as we weren’t sure exactly how long we would need to explore the city. So, when we woke up the next morning, we had to be prepared to wrap up our time here. We started the day with pretzel shaped doughnuts…which was a hit with everyone.

The face of a child who couldn’t stop chewing long enough to have her photo taken…very happy with her breakfast choice!

After breakfast and some more walking around, it was time for a vin chaud. We had heard from someone the day before that there was a stand doing an incredible vin chaud where they flambé the sugar before you douse it in your drink. Naturally, we had to check that out. It definitely didn’t disappoint…and was probably the best vin chaud I’ve had to date. We were fortunate to have a beautiful sunny day to explore. One bonus of the day…Belinda ran into a good friend from school while we were wandering the streets of Strasbourg!

Unfortunately, the hotel was unable to extend our checkout time to very late because they were scheduled to be completely full that night, so we had to dash back to the hotel to check out before lunch. We did this, and headed out again to find a place to eat. We were originally headed to a place recommended by the concierge at the hotel, but they had a huge wait. We happened into a restaurant called Calmos just around the corner, and I’m really glad we did. They had no wait (it was, admittedly, a late lunch), and we were seated right away. The food was really, really good. The wine list was creative and had several very interesting offerings, and it was a great meal to cap off our time in Strasbourg.

I wish I could say that our trip back into Paris was uneventful…but, transit strike. We arrived in a driving rain storm to a queue about 100 people deep with no taxis arriving. The G7 app (Paris’s version of Uber for taxis) wouldn’t allow us to order a car. But we decided to ditch the line and try our luck with Uber. We managed to get cars, (we needed 2 because there were 5 of us, and no vans available)…but trying to figure out where to meet a French-only speaking driver while carrying suitcases in the pouring rain is never a fun experience! But, the trip was definitely worthwhile, and I’m glad we went. I would definitely recommend putting the Strasbourg Christmas markets on your list of places to visit!

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